The first home game of the postseason felt more like an away game Thursday night for the Corona del Mar High girls' basketball team.
The first week of the CIF Southern Section playoffs also is "ski week" in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, so student supporters were at a bare minimum. There were only about 30 CdM fans in the stands at opening tip-off. Visiting Orange High, by contrast, had a loud and spirited student section and brought cheerleaders.
"At times it felt like [an away game]," CdM sophomore forward Natalia Bruening said. "But any crowd's good. I like it when it's loud."
The play of Bruening said plenty for the Sea Kings. The 6-foot-3 post player stood tall.
She totaled game-highs of 20 points, 19 rebounds and four blocked shots as No. 6-seeded CdM pulled away for a 52-33 victory in the Division 3AA first-round game.
Corona del Mar (19-8) will play at No. 11 Garden Grove Pacifica in the second round Saturday night. Pacifica beat San Gorgonio, 84-59, in another first-round game Thursday.
CdM is trying to make the CIF quarterfinals for the first time in Coach Mark Decker's eight-year tenure. The year was 2000 the last time the Sea Kings made it that far in CIF. Bruening was 2 years old.
The Sea Kings played their second-round opponent, Pacifica, earlier this season. They suffered a 68-58 loss in the championship game of the Ocean View tournament on Dec. 14.
"It's revenge, first off, so that's always good," Bruening said. "The first time we played them, it was probably our worst defensive game, and we only lost by 10. It shows that we have a really good chance against them. It feels like forever ago. I know our team is completely different than it was then, and I'm sure theirs is as well."
CdM appeared ready to blow out Orange (12-12) early. The hosts built an 11-0 lead late in the first quarter before the Panthers scored their first point, on a free throw.
But Orange battled back in the second quarter, taking advantage of CdM turnovers to tie the score, 24-24, at halftime. Senior forward Mariah Archuleta got hot for Orange, scoring six quick points.
"I can't even explain it," Decker said. "We just freaked out. We regrouped and had a really good defensive third quarter. Offensively, we were still struggling a little bit, but the first and third quarter we played great 'D.' That was the difference in the game."
Orange, an at-large selection after finishing fourth in the Golden West League, could not recover from its second dry spell of the game. After Emily Pontiakos made a layup early in the third quarter, the visitors went about 12 minutes without a field goal, before Arianna Hernandez scored with 2:48 left in the game.
In between, the Sea Kings went on a 17-1 run, taken a commanding 42-27 lead. Sophomore center Krista Anderson overcame first-half foul trouble to score 12 points, nine of those coming in the final quarter. Anderson kept the Sea Kings scoring as Bruening took a quick breather early in the quarter.
"Both those girls, they're not just tall," Decker said. "They're really, really, good. We just want to make sure they get touches. It makes everything go for us."
Senior guard Keaton Gaughan added seven points and junior forward Maria King had five for CdM. They helped the Sea Kings earn their 19th win, the most in a single season under Decker.
To win a CIF title, CdM will need four more victories.
"We haven't really talked about it yet, but my personal goal is to go all the way obviously," Bruening said. "We have one banner for girls' basketball CIF champions [in 1983]. We all know what our goals are. We all want to make history."
CIF Southern Section Division 3AA playoffs